Printing processes

There are a wide variety of technologies that are used to print stuff. The main industrial printing processes are:

Additional printing techniques were developed for very specific applications. These include flock printing, letterpress, intaglio, pad printing, and thermography.

Why a certain job is better printed using one of these processes mentioned can be read on this page about choosing a printing process.


In offset lithography a printing plate, which is most often made from aluminum, contains an image of the content that needs to be printed. When the plate is inked, only this image part holds ink. That inked image is subsequently transferred (or offset) from the plate to a rubber blanket and then to the printing surface. The process can be used to print on paper, cardboard, plastic or other materials, but these have to have a flat surface.

Below is a picture of a 4 color sheetfed printing press. At the far end is the intake where individual sheets of paper are automatically fed into the press. The 4 towers or printing units each print one color, typically black get printed first, followed by cyan, magenta and yellow. The stack of printed sheets is visible on the front of the machine, underneath the press console & monitor which the press operator uses to control the press.

4 color Ryobi press

For higher volume work offset presses use rolls of paper. The picture below shows such a much larger web press. It is so fast that the printed paper needs to be force dried. The black unit at the end of the press is an oven.

Manroland web press with drying oven

Offset is nowadays the most widely used printing technique for an extensive range of products such as books, newspapers, stationery, corrugated board, posters, etc.

Using offset to print promotion, packaging, publications and on productsThere is a trend that printing promotional material is gradually migrating to digital printing while some packaging printing is moving to flexo.

You can find more information on the page dedicated to offset printing.


In flexography the content that needs to be printed is on a relief of a printing plate, which is made from rubber. This plate is inked and that inked image is subsequently transferred to the printing surface.  The process can be used to print on paper as well as plastics, metals, cellophane and other materials. Flexo is mainly used for packaging and labels and to a lesser extent also for newspapers.

Using flexo to print promotion, packaging, publications and on productsSome packaging printing is moving from flexo to digital.

Digital printing

Digital printing can be done in various ways. Two technologies dominate the industry:

  • Inkjet – In an inkjet printer the image that needs to be printed is created by small droplets of ink that are propelled from the nozzles of one or more print heads. Inkjet devices can print on a wide range of substrates such as paper, plastic, canvas or even doors and floor tiles. Inkjet printing is used a lot for posters and signage. It is also economical for short run publications such as photo books or small runs of books. In-line inkjet printers are sometimes combined with other types of presses to print variable data, such as the mailing addresses on direct mail pieces.  The press shown below is the HP PageWide C500, meant for printing on corrugated board.
    HP PageWide C500 Press
  • Xerography – In xerographic printers, such as laser printers, the image that needs to be printed is formed by selectively applying a charge to a metal cylinder called a drum. The electrical charge is used to attract toner particles. These particles are transferred to the media that is being printed on. To make sure the toner is fixed properly, the substrate passes through a fuser that melts the toner into the medium. Laser printers are not only used in offices but also for small run printing of books, brochures and other types of document. These printers are also used for transactional printing (bills, bank documents, etc) and direct mail.

In 2009 both techniques jointly accounted for around 15% of the total volume of print.

Using digital printing for promotion, packaging, publications and productsDigital printing is increasingly utilized for print jobs that were previously printing using offset, flexo or screen printing.

  • In short run small format (A3 size) printing, digital is taking over from offset for both color and B&W printing. Quick printers and copy shops print digitally on presses from vendors like Xerox, HP, Canon, and Konica Minolta.
  • Labels are also increasingly being printed digitally.
  • Billboard and point-of-sale or point-of-purchase jobs are being done by wide-format inkjet devices.
  • In book printing publishing companies start to rely more on print-on-demand. The Espresso Book Machine pictured below is well suited for that job.

There are a number of other digital printing processes that are geared towards specific niche markets:

  • Dye-sublimation is a printing process in which heat is used to transfer a dye onto the substrate. Dye-sub printers are mainly used for proofing and for producing photographic prints. Some can print on a variety of materials such as paper, plastic, and fabric.
  • In the direct thermal printing process heat is used to change the color of a special coating that has been applied to paper. This process is nowadays still in use in cash registers.
  • In the thermal ink transfer printing process heat is used to melt print off a ribbon and onto the substrate. It is used in some proofing devices but seems to be gradually disappearing off the market.


Also known as rotogravure, this is a technique in which an image is engraved into a printing cylinder. That cylinder is inked and this ink subsequently transfers to the paper.  Gravure is used for high volume work such as newspapers,  magazines, and packaging.

Using rotogravure to print promotion, packaging, publications and on productsGravure is gradually losing market share to offset for publication printing and to flexo for packaging applications.

Screen printing

As its name implies, this printing technique relies on a screen, which is a woven piece of fabric. Certain areas of this mesh are coated with a non-permeable material. In the remaining open spaces ink can be pushed through the mesh onto a substrate. The advantage of screen printing is that the surface of the recipient does not have to be flat and that the ink can adhere to a wide range of materials, such as paper, textiles, glass, ceramics, wood, and metal.

The image below shows a screen printing press that is used to print t-shirts.

Press that is used to print t-shirtsIncreasingly screen printing is being replaced by digital printing.

Additional printing processes

  • Letterpress – Once a dominant printing technique, letterpress is now used for business cards, wedding invitations,…
  • Flocking – used to add a (colored) velvet-like texture to paper, textiles, etc.
  • Pad printing – used to print on 3-dimensional surfaces.
  • Intaglio – nowadays mainly used for used stamps and paper currency.
  • Thermography – This is more of a finishing process than an actual printing process. It produces raised lettering on the printed side of the paper and is used for wedding invitations, letterheads, business cards,…
28 December 2016

31 responses to “Printing processes”

  1. Kelly says:

    Hi Laurens
    Do you have any additional information on heat transfer printing. I’m trying to figure out how to print iron-on transfers for hand embroidery designs – basically a line drawing that you can transfer to fabric using a home iron – and so far I’ve worked out that it has to do with the ink/printing system as they’re typically printed on generic copy paper or a vellum-type tracing paper.
    Sublimation printing is no good as it only works on synthetic fabrics, not natural fabrics such as cotton or linen, and requires specialist paper for the transfer.
    Any advice would be much appreciated. Thanks, Kelly

  2. samuel dankwa says:

    please can you help me with the various papers used in the various printing process. thank you

  3. Lee cain says:

    Concerning: self mailer placed in magazine as blow in, that fall out where you subscriber to magazine note: not postcards but self mailer.

    Using cheap paper and cheap printing including color and a perforated line.

    What printing process can satisfy this requirements?
    Also what type of paper could be used? Cheapest is preferred.

  4. Emmanuel says:

    Hi Laurens,
    I am currently studying in University of Applied Sciences. I have a presentation to make on Offset printing.
    I would like to know if I could include your pictures and graphs in my PowerPoint.

    Thank you

    • Laurens says:

      Partially reusing content from this site for educational purposes in presentations or papers is fine with me. A reference to the source is appreciated.
      Copying entire pages is, however, not allowed. Many major web publishing platforms enforce the DMCA-act so stealing content and pretending it is yours can lead to getting one’s account canceled.

  5. Prabhu says:

    I am a mango farmer. I want to make small carton boxes to supply mangoes directly to my retail clients. To minimise storage space and change in printing designs, I need to prepare labels etc. in small quantity myself. Can you suggest me a way to get it done with low capital exp.

    • Laurens says:

      Cardboard boxes are delivered folded, so storing hundreds or thousands of boxes that a local printer preprinted for you does not take up much space. You could print labels yourself but it is probably also more economically to have them printed elsewhere. Printers who specialize in labels can produce them at a lower price than you ever could. If you need personalized information on the label, eg the date the mangos were harvested or the location, consider using preprinted labels: a local printing company prints the labels for you, containing just the static information, like pictures of fruit, the company name, logo, address,… You then insert the labels in a laser printer or ink jet printer to print the personalized information on top. That way you combine high quality affordable labels with content you added yourself at the last minute.

  6. Nins says:

    Hi, thankyou for the info. Do you suggest I start my printing business with cheap machine. And what are the best prices you know for a small digital machine? Im researching within my area but would like to know prices abroad.

    • Laurens says:

      That is a very broad and rather odd question. I’d say you start your business with the best printer you can afford that meets the requirements of your customers. That latter part – the customer – is completely missing in your question.

  7. Dear Sir,
    I want to know about the process involve in aluminum screen printing in details with proper instruction.

  8. Marri Shyam Sunder says:

    I am a printing student from Guru Jambheshwar Thanking you for this information

  9. Kawtuk Jaiswal says:

    Hello Sir,
    I must say , your blog is an inspiration to all of us who want to start up , in the printing & packaging industry.
    Sir, i want to know ,i want to set up my own unit n the bottle labels & wrappers segment.
    Is there any industrial printer, which can help me print PVC labels (Plastic & paper labels) printing.
    Or suggest me anything else updated process in this field.
    Thank you

  10. rahul raj says:

    I want to start my business through business card printing give me some ideas .just like
    what is the cheap process ?how much investment requires?

    • Laurens says:

      There are so many different types of digital printers capable of printing business cards that it is is impossible for anyone to give a proper answer without knowing on which types of stocks you want to print and what your expected daily volume and quality expectations are. Instead of investing in your own equipment; you could also look into buying spare capacity at the existing local printers. A lot of well-known web-to-print companies started like that.

  11. Packingsupply says:

    Hi..all types of printing are nicely explained and it was very helpful as could easily understand the differences between each type along with the field in which it is used like packaging, promotion, publication etc.
    Thanks for sharing 🙂


    What digital card printers are best for printing PVC business cards only, from scanned original paper cards?
    Do not need encoding,encripting or any security stuff! Just plain business/visiting cards!
    Thanks, Graeme

  13. Robert says:


    If I screen print white UV ink onto Transparent BOPP material, will I later be able to print on top using offset machine and offset inks?

  14. sugesh sukumar says:

    hi, For the Printing on PVC ,Which printing is doing and in which what solution(solvents) can be used as ink reducer.

  15. Sundar Raghumaran says:

    Thanks for the information. I wanted to know various types of printing for my profession. I found this article very helpful. I am still searching for the more clarity on Printers used for Bar Code printing. Can you anyone tell me, whether all these types are capable of printing Bar codes?

    • Laurens says:

      I am not an expert but I think that with the possible exception of screen printing all printing techniques can handle barcodes.

  16. ryan van der meer says:

    hi i feel like this is a very helpful article in which my wisdom has been heightened because of this wonderful article. thank you so much for the elaboration and the detail into which this response has been created. as an artist myself i find it very important to use a variety of different printing methods and thanks to your super article i can now explore the various elements of printing. youve really helped me. Thanks!

  17. Joaquim says:


    It’s very difficult to find useful graphics representing the many printing tecnologies together with the flexible packaging market sectors. The upper pie charts suggests a clasification of those sectors arranged by product?, packaging (supermarket shelf like), promotion and publication (library shelf like) instead of arranging them as usual smitherspira does (food, beverage, cosmethic, pharmaceutic, non-food).

    Is it possible to provide the source of these charts?

    Thank you very much

  18. Adam Farwell says:

    As a designer it is helpful to know the details about the different printing methods. I’m always looking for a deeper understanding. Why are projects moving away from offset? Is it cost related?

    • Laurens says:

      Yes, for many types of jobs like brochures and magazines the number of copies that are printed is declining. This can make a switch to digital printing economically more attractive.

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